WASHINGTON AT WAR Inside the Iraq Study Group
CIA Said Instability Seemed 'Irreversible'
Thursday, July 12, 2007
Early on the morning of Nov. 13, 2006, members of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group gathered around a dark wooden conference table in the windowless Roosevelt Room of the White House.
For more than an hour, they listened to President Bush give what one panel member called a "Churchillian" vision of "victory" in Iraq and defend the country's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. "A constitutional order is emerging," he said.
Later that morning, around the same conference table, CIA Director Michael V. Hayden painted a starkly different picture for members of the study group. Hayden said "the inability of the government to govern seems irreversible," adding that he could not "point to any milestone or checkpoint where we can turn this thing around," according to written records of his briefing and the recollections of six participants.
"The government is unable to govern," Hayden concluded. "We have spent a lot of energy and treasure creating a government that is balanced, and it cannot function."
Later in the interview, he qualified the statement somewhat: "A government that can govern, sustain and defend itself is not achievable," he said, "in the short term."
Hayden's bleak assessment, which came just a week after Republicans had lost control of Congress and Bush had dismissed Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, was a pivotal moment in the study group's intensive examination of the Iraq war, and it helped shape its conclusion in its final report that the situation in Iraq was "grave and deteriorating."
In the eight months since the interview, neither Hayden nor any other high-ranking administration official has publicly described the Iraqi government in the uniformly negative terms that the CIA director used in his closed-door briefing.
Among the 79 specific recommendations the Iraq Study Group made to Bush was withdrawing support for the Maliki government unless it showed "substantial progress" on security and national reconciliation. And it recommended changing the primary mission of U.S. forces from combat to training Iraqis so that combat units could be withdrawn by early 2008.
In effect, the report from the bipartisan group -- co-chaired by former secretary of state James A. Baker III, a Republican, and former congressman Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.) -- was an urgent message from the old Washington establishment to the Bush administration to change the direction of its Iraq policy. But Bush did not initially embrace any of the key recommendations, although bipartisan groups in the House and Senate have recently introduced legislation that would make them official U.S. policy.
Instead, the president in January announced that he was sending more troops to Iraq as part of a "surge," which he said would lead to the victory that had so far eluded U.S. forces.
Both Bush and Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, have repeatedly said that there is no military solution to Iraq and that the sectarian strife and the insurgency can be resolved only by the Iraqi government.
Hayden's description of Iraq's dysfunctional government provides some insight into the intelligence community's analysis of Maliki and the situation on the ground. Five days before his testimony, national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley had written a memo to Bush raising doubts about Maliki's ability to curb violence in Iraq, but his assessment was not as bleak as Hayden's.